Reading on, I found something else the author said that triggered a spark in my mind. Talking about Pagel's aforementioned book, Mitchell said:
"[It was] quite enlightening, for someone brought up very Catholic, to see a nonhierarchical view of religion. It didn't make sense that just because Adam and Eve wanted to know something they were penalized. In the Gnostic view, Eve was really connected to an overarching God; like Jesus, she was a knowledge giver. I paraphrased this for the movie."Immediately, I was taken by this particular approach of contrasting Gnosticism with traditional Catholocism (as a means to explain Gnosticism to someone not too familiar with it). From a Catholic perspective, we're taught that the Serpent is an agent of Satan and thus evil. Okay, fine... I guess. But Mitchell's succinct point made so much sense -- Adam and Even are penalized for wanting to know something... is that so bad? Isn't it (their God-given) nature to want to know things?
The link of thoughts continued. I instantly recalled an interview I'd read with Quentin Tarantino regarding Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. In the interview, when asked what part of the Bible he'd chose to make a movie about, he answered "the Snake and Eve." Tarantino continues:
"It's not a bad thing for Eve and Adam to taste the forbidden fruit. On the contrary, it's a good thing. The tree filled with forbidden fruits is the Tree of Knowledge. If they didn't taste the forbidden fruit, our life today would not be so colorful, so enjoyable. Maybe live like animals, see the rabbits in the yard? The tree bore the fruits of freedom and the snake gave the fruit to them. [The snake] was a messenger of freedom and Eve was a hero."Again, the same point driven home. Further support for this argument wasn't difficult for me to find, as I recalled a Joseph Campbell lecture in which he compares the Genesis Garden of Eden story to a Sumerian equivalent from 2000 B.C. (which also features the Tree and the Serpent). Campbell brings it home even more. Talking about the view of the Serpent in the Sumerian tradition, he describes it as "the divinity of the garden" and "lord of the universe that tells you where [eternal life] is." The Serpent sometimes appears as a man-like figure, he says, and "holds in one hand a jar of the Elixir of Immortality and in the other hand a branch of that tree -- exactly what was offered to Eve."
This was the approach (in describing Gnosticism) that I was looking for, one that I felt made total sense. The Serpent is in fact helping Eve (and Adam), guiding them to knowledge which is attempting to be withheld from them. And who is withholding it? "God" -- or he who believes he is God -- what the Gnostics would call the demiurge (half-creator). "Imagine that the God in the Garden of Eden is actually an imposter God," I imagine myself saying. "He thinks he is God, but he is really mistaken. And the Serpent, then," I continue, "is a messenger of the True God -- as was Jesus -- who leads our Hero (Eve) to the knowledge she seeks. This fruit awakens Eve to the knowledge within (gnosis), which she shares with Adam."
I felt like this idea would communicate the point well and I was quite glad to have discovered this analogy. Hoping to further ram the point home (in this imaginary conversation), I scoured my mind for other recent and well-known movies where these general Gnostic principles were also evident. And then I thought of Garden State and knew I was on to something.
The basic Gnostic framework, as I'd quickly describes, comes down to this. The material world in which we live is "removed from," "seperate from," or even "flawed" in comparison to the blissful "fullness" which we intrinsically seek. The demiurge is a concept that is understood as the "false God," the God who thinks he is true God but is in fact mistaken (i.e., just as we mistake any image we ascribe to God as being God himself). This material world is the creation of the demiurge, and in a certain sense is a prison (Gnostic author Phillip Dick called it the "black iron prison" ... just think the Matrix!). Freedom and liberation from this world of suffering is possible though, as there is a divine spark found in all things (ourselves included). Through the experience and knowledge of this "divine spark" (which infact connects us to the greater Source -- the true God) we experience gnosis, "knowledge," the full experience of being alive. (There are some other basic Gnostic terms that I've omitted to keep things simple. For a good and quick roundup/list, check out the "Gnostictionary" at the blog Homoplasmate.)
Back to Garden State. As for the demiurge -- this imposter God who thinks he knows all -- my thoughts instantly turn to Largeman's (Zach Braff's) father. He has kept his son deprived by giving him mind-numbing medication for practically his entire life, "protecting him" (as the Father sees it) from that which is either dangerous or undesirable. This may be done with best intentions, surely. But the result is undeniable -- Largeman has been deprived of feeling "alive" the entire time. The different medicines he takes daily keep him shut off from this inner-knowledge.
Of course, the entire film (which is about him "returning home"...i.e., back to the source) deals with his adventure being off these pills for the first time. And what happens? He begins to feel again. At first he gets these strange headaches -- "like little lightning storms in my head... and then they're gone." This line fits well with the Gnostic description of the "divine spark" that is within each of us, which leads us toward an identification with the greater Light through the fully engaged experience of life (gnosis).
Upon returning home to Jersey, Largeman is reunited with many of his old friends. The state of life they find themselves in is quite relevant here. For example, we're introduced to Tim, who wears his Medieval Times armour outside of work. This clearly suggests that his "work" personae (mask) is covering up what is probably non-existant -- his inner-self, as he has nothing to show: he is "only a fast-food knight." Is merit to be earned in the material world (created by the demiurge), or is true knight-hood (gnosis) to be found within?
It is also worth mentioning the character Jesse, who finds himself rolling in money due to his invention of "silent velcro." Now that making money isn't a problem for him, he admits to doing nothing with himself. He lives in a big house (material/outward success) but has no furniture (spiritual/inner success). "I've never been so bored in all my life," he says. For most all of us, it is by questing through the swamps, wastelands and everyday detritis that we are to find the treasure -- by working through the muck of our economic demands we are invited to discover the inner-light and inner-worth that stems from within us, as opposed to some outside source.
This character, though, has fallen into an economic situation where his life is deprived of that quest. He may not have to wake up to an alarm, but odds are (and it sure looks as if) he isn't at all in a situation where his finer qualities are being called forth. I don't mean to say anyone in similar millionaire shows couldn't find the treasure through their own self-guided exploration... but in our day and age, as we grow up and expect that responsibility will be handed to us (as opposed to coming from within), he is not at all primed or ready to find the treasure at his current state. But there is certainly hope for him (as there is for everyone), and we see him last floating on a raft in his pool, hands behind his head, looking toward the sky deep in thought.
The final theme of Garden State that must be discussed is this important "infinite abyss." An abyss is formless, it is a void that is sizeless, it is full of nothing at all. And where there is nothing, there is everything. All of these italicized words are quite suggestive of the Gnostic concept of the Godhead -- the trueGod -- about which no words and no descriptions could be uttered (not that we're not allowed to say the words, but because we don't even have the words -- they cannot possibly exist). This "flawed" material world -- though seemingly a creation of the demiurge (which itself is to be thought of as a concept, not as an actual person/spirit/being) -- is itself a manifestation of this gaping void. While we cannot physically return to this "void" or "abyss" (or "heaven") -- which is what our inner-most beings seem to strive for -- the answer can be found through gnosis... that is, the inner- and self-realization of the divine in our everyday experience (and the knowledge thereof).
In that which is formless (the "infinite abyss"), anything is impossible and everything is unique. In that sense, each moment in life is "our one chance," says Sam (Natalie Portman's character), "to do something totally original, totally unique, that no one has ever done before." To live with full realization of this is what it is all about. And of course, this is something that takes time -- our whole lives, really -- but it is nonetheless a treasure worth pursuing.
At the film's end, Largeman, Sam and Mark -- all of whom have undergone rather meaningful transformations in the film -- stand above the gaping infinite abyss, screaming with joy as loud as their insignificant bodies are able to yell. The rain falls upon them and they are reborn and annointed (suggestive of baptism) -- their old "selves" washed away as they stand in full realization of the infinite abyss of possibilities that awaits them -- the rest of their lives. They have indeed found that moment we all seek.
So there we go. I'm sure someone could easily quibble that all of this is a stretch and that nothing about this film is really Gnostic in nature -- and that is fine with me. When it comes to getting this across, however, I think what's important is the individual's understanding of the general concepts as they're relevant in their own lives. Gnosticism isn't about being elite or an uber-scholar or memorizing fancy definitions or scripture word-for-word. It is about the same reality and life we all experience -- each and every one of us -- on a daily basis. Gnosticism merely provides a basic vocabulary framework in which to describe these concepts. That is, at least, how I understand it.
Perhaps, then, "Garden State" isn't just referring to the state of New Jersey, but more to a state of mind. As Joseph Campbell concludes in the lecture mentioned above, "All that is keeping you out of the Garden is your own psychology. Just learn to transcend the ego system and you will find that your ego evaporates and that you are one with that eternal life that lives in you all the time." And then we can again enter Eden... the Garden of Eden... that "Garden (of Eden) State (of mind)." Thanks to my big brother for noticing that one.
And with these words I leave you. I wish you well, and indeed... (it is too easy, I must say it)... "good luck exploring the infinite abyss!"